Prewriting exercises provide structure and meaning to your topic and research before you begin to write a draft. Using prewriting strategies to organize and generate ideas prevents a writer from becoming frustrated or stuck. Just as you would prepare to give a public speech on note cards, it is also necessary to write ideas down for a rough draft. After all, your audience is counting on a well-organized presentation of interesting facts, a storyline, or whatever you are required to write about. Prewriting exercises can help you focus your ideas, determine a topic, and develop a logical structure for your paper.
Brainstorming: It's often helpful to set a time limit on this; plan to brainstorm for ten minutes, for example. This will help you focus and keep you from feeling overwhelmed. This is especially helpful when you're still trying to narrow or focus your topic. You'll start with a blank page, and you'll write down as many ideas about your topic as you can think of. Ask yourself questions as you write: Why am I doing this? Why do I like this? Why don't I like this? What is the most interesting thing about this field or issue? How would my audience feel about this? What can we learn from this? How can we benefit from knowing more? When time is up, read over your list, and add anything else that you think of. Are there patterns or ideas that keep coming up? These are often clues about what is most important about this topic or issue.
Freewriting: A time limit is also useful in this exercise. Using a blank piece of paper or your word-processing program, summarize your topic in a sentence and keep writing. Write anything that comes to your mind and don't stop. Don't worry about grammar or spelling, and if you get stuck, just write whatever comes to mind. Continue until your time limit is up, and when it's time to stop, read over what you've written and start underlining the most important or relevant ideas. This will help you to identify your most important ideas, and you'll often be surprised by what you come up with.
Listing: In this exercise, you'll simply list all of your ideas. This will help you when you are mapping or outlining your ideas, because as you use an idea, you can cross it off your list.
Clustering: This is another way to record your thoughts and observations for a paragraph or essay after you have chosen a topic. First draw a circle near the center of a blank piece of paper, and in that circle, write the subject of your essay or paragraph. Then in a ring around the main circle, write down the main parts or subtopics within the main topic. Circle each of these, and then draw a line connecting them to the main circle in the middle. Then think of other ideas, facts, or issues that relate to each of the main parts/subtopics, circle these, and draw lines connecting them to the relevant part/subtopic. Repeat this process with each new circle until you run out of ideas. This is a great way of identifying the parts within your topic, which will provide content for the paper, and it also helps you discover how these parts relate to each other.
Outlining Your Paper
An outline is a plan for the paper that will help you organize and structure your ideas in a way that effectively communicates them to your reader and supports your thesis statement. You'll want to work on an outline after you've completed some of the other exercises, since having an idea of what you'll say in the paper will make it much easier to write. An outline can be very informal; you might simply jot down your thesis statement, what the introduction will discuss, what you'll say in the body of the paper, and what you want to include in the conclusion.
Remember that all writing — even academic writing — needs to tell a story: the introduction often describes what has already happened (the background or history of your topic), the body paragraphs might explain what is currently happening and what needs to happen (this often involves discussing a problem, the need for a solution, and possible solutions), and the conclusion usually looks to the future by focusing on what is likely to happen (what might happen next, and whether a solution is likely). If you work on telling a story in the paper, it will help you to structure it in a way that the reader can easily follow and understand.
Sometimes you may be required (or you may want) to develop a more formal outline with numbered and lettered headings and subheadings. This will help you to demonstrate the relationships between the ideas, facts, and information within the paper. Here's an example of what this might look like:
- Fact that grabs audience attention
- Background/history of issue/problem/topic
- Thesis statement
Current state of issue/problem/topic
- Topic/claim sentence: Make a claim that explains what the paragraph is about
- Evidence that supports/explains the claim (this is often research from secondary sources)
- Analysis that explains how the evidence supports your claim and why this matters to the paper's thesis statement
The need for a solution or course of action
- Possible solution
- What might happen now?
- Is a solution likely?
- What's the future of the issue?
Your outline will contain more detailed information, and if there are certain areas that the assignment requires you to cover, then you can modify the outline to include these. You can also expand it if you're writing a longer research paper: the discussion of the problem might need several paragraphs, for example, and you might discuss the pros and cons of several possible solutions.
Prewriting is the first stage of the writing process, typically followed by drafting, revision, editing and publishing.
Prewriting can consist of a combination of outlining, diagramming, storyboarding, clustering (for a technique similar to clustering, see mindmapping).
Motivation and audience awareness
Prewriting usually begins with motivation and audience awareness: what is the student or writer trying to communicate, why is it important to communicate it well and who is the audience for this communication. It helps you put your thought out onto the paper on what you want to write about. Writers usually begin with a clear idea of audience, content and the importance of their communication; sometimes, one of these needs to be clarified for the best communication. Student writers find motivation especially difficult because they are writing for a teacher or for a grade, instead of a real audience. Often teachers try to find a real audience for students by asking them to read to younger classes or to parents, by posting writing for others to read, by writing a blog, or by writing on real topics, such as a letter to the editor of a local newspaper.
Choosing a topic
One important task in prewriting is choosing a topic and then narrowing it to a length that can be covered in the space allowed. Oral storytelling is an effective way to search for a good topic for a personal narrative. Writers can quickly tell a story and judge from the listeners' reactions whether it will be an interesting topic to write about.
Another way to find a topic is to freewrite, a method first popularized by Peter Elbow. When freewriting, you write any and every idea that comes to mind. This could also be a written exploration of your current knowledge of a broad topic, with the idea that you are looking for a narrow topic to write about. Often freewriting is timed. The writer is instructed to keep writing until the time period ends, which encourages him/her to keep writing past the pre-conceived ideas and hopefully find a more interesting topic.
Several other methods of choosing a topic overlap with another broad concern of prewriting, that of researching or gathering information. Reading is effective in both choosing and narrowing a topic and in gathering information to include in the writing. As a writer reads other works, it expands ideas, opens possibilities and points toward options for topics and narrates specific content for the eventual writing. One traditional method of tracking the content read is to create annotated note cards with one chunk of information per card. Writers also need to document music, photos, web sites, interviews, and any other source used to prevent plagiarism.
Besides reading what others also make original observations relating to a topic. This requires on-site visits, experimentation with something, or finding original or primary historical documents. Writers interact with the setting or materials and make observations about their experience. For strong writing, particular attention should be given to sensory details (what the writer hears, tastes, touches, smells and feels). While gathering material, often writers pay particular attention to the vocabulary used in discussing the topic. This would include slang, specific terminology, translations of terms, and typical phrases used. The writer often looks up definitions, synonyms and finds ways that different people use the terminology. Lists, journals, teacher-student conference, drawing illustrations, using imagination, restating a problem in multiple ways, watching videos, inventorying interests – these are some of the other methods for gathering information.
After reading and observing, often writers need to discuss material. They might brainstorm with a group or topics or how to narrow a topic. Or, they might discuss events, ideas, and interpretations with just one other person. Oral storytelling might enter again, as the writer turns it into a narrative, or just tries out ways of using the new terminology. Sometimes writers draw or use information as basis for artwork as a way to understand the material better.
Narrowing the topic
Narrowing a topic is an important step of prewriting. For example, a personal narrative of five pages could be narrowed to an incident that occurred in a thirty-minute time period. This restricted time period means the writer must slow down and tell the event moment by moment with many details. By contrast, a five-page essay about a three-day trip would only skim the surface of the experience. The writer must consider again the goals of communication – content, audience, importance of information – but add to this a consideration of the format for the writing. He or she should consider how much space is allowed for the communication and how What can be effectively communicated within that space?
At this point, the writer needs to consider the organization of content. Outlining in a hierarchical structure is one of the typical strategies, and usually includes three or more levels in the hierarchy. Typical outlines are organized by chronology, spatial relationships, or by subtopics. Other outlines might include sequences along a continuum: big to little, old to new, etc. Clustering, a technique of creating a visual web that represents associations among ideas, is another help in creating structure, because it reveals relationships. Storyboarding is a method of drawing rough sketches to plan a picture book, a movie script, a graphic novel or other fiction.
Developmental acquisition of organizing skills
While information on the developmental sequence of organizing skills is sketchy, anecdotal information suggests that children follow this rough sequence: 1) sort into categories, 2) structure the categories into a specific order for best communication, using criteria such as which item will best work to catch readers attention in the opening, 3) within a category, sequence information into a specific order for best communication, using criteria such as what will best persuade an audience. At each level, it is important that student writers discuss their decisions; they should understand that categories for a certain topic could be structured in several different ways, all correct. A final skill acquired is the ability to omit information that is not needed in order to communicate effectively.
Even sketchier is information on what types of organization are acquired first, but anecdotal information and research suggests that even young children understand chronological information, making narratives the easiest type of student writing. Persuasive writing usually requires logical thinking and studies in child development indicate that logical thinking is not present until a child is 10–12 years old, making it one of the later writing skills to acquire. Before this age, persuasive writing will rely mostly on emotional arguments.
Writers also use the prewriting phase to experiment with ways of expressing ideas. For oral storytelling, a writer could tell a story three times, but each time begin at a different time, include or exclude information, end at a different time or place. Writers often try writing the same information. but using different voices, in search of the best way to communicate this information or tell this story.
Prewriting is recursive, that is, it can occur at any time in the writing process and can return several times. For example, after a first draft, a writer may need to return to an information gathering stage, or may need to discuss the material with someone, or may need to adjust the outline. While the writing process is discussed as having distinct stages, in reality, they often overlap and circle back on one another.
Prewriting varies depending on the writing task or rhetorical mode. Fiction requires more imagination, while informational essays or expository writing require stronger organization. Persuasive writing must consider not just the information to be communicated, but how best to change the reader’s ideas or convictions. Folktales will require extensive reading of the genre to learn common conventions. Each writing task will require a different selection of prewriting strategies, used in a different order.
Technological tools are often used in prewriting tasks, including word processors, spreadsheets and publishing programs; however, technology appears to be more useful in the revision, editing and publishing phases of prewriting.
Teaching writing as a process is accepted pedagogical practice, but there is increasing concern that writing tests do not allow for the full writing process, especially cutting short the time needed for prewriting tasks.
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